Judge Dee

From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and in the US. Tsui Hark’s forthcoming Dee movie is out in Asia next month. You can never have enough films about Empress Wu, and in depicting Dee as a young man, they’re leaving things way open for many sequels.


Another loyal official was the popular magistrate Judge Dee (Di Renjie). Posted to the remote western Gansu region, he had enjoyed the support of both Chinese colonists and the local population of non-Chinese. His career suffered a series of setbacks due to the enemies he made at court, and by the late 680s, he was serving as a magistrate in a remote southern posting. Judge Dee arrived to find a prefecture in chaos, with many administrative personnel carted away for show trials, while armies of secret police terrorised the population.

Wu’s secret police might have been behaving like storm troopers, but this was not necessarily with her knowledge or approval. In secret, Judge Dee wrote a letter to Wu herself, complaining that he was witness to daily persecutions of innocent citizens, but that if he protested, the secret police would be sure to frame him for an imagined crime. If, however, he remained quiet, then he would be doing a disservice to Empress Wu, since she would be held ultimately responsible for the crimes that were being committed in her name. Instead of reacting with the umbrage that her enemies would have us suspect, Empress Wu ordered for the release of many of the unjustly accused, and commuted the sentences of less clear-cut cases from execution to banishment.

Judge Dee would continue to fight for justice against some of the worst of Wu’s hatchet men. When a military governor took over the province, Judge Dee stood up to him directly. His case, like that of Xu Yugong’s back in the capital, was that the people were being punished for the actions of a handful of aristocrats. In fact, in the case of his own locality, peasants who had been oppressed and victimised by would-be rebels, forced on pain of death to carry out their bidding, were now being similarly pressured by the investigators. In fact, Judge Dee went so far as to suggest that the secret police were doing more damage in his region than the rebels ever had. With bullish predictability, the governor wrote to Empress Wu, claiming that Judge Dee was guilty of corruption. He was thus rather surprised when the reply came back, ordering him sent away to a distant and unpleasant posting, while Judge Dee was promoted with a summons to serve at the court of Luoyang itself.

Into Songland

companyI have been out into the wilds of Finland, up near the Russian border on the edges of songland, the place that supplied so much of the material for the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth. In the company of Mrs Clements, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, I spent a fascinating day at Kalevala Spirit, a recreation of a medieval Karelian stockaded clan-house, wherein the inhabitants lived, worked and cooked using only the means and materials described in the pages of the Kalevala.

As regular readers will know, I have been writing on matters Finnish for several years, but there was much to learn at Kalevala Spirit, thanks to Akke Virtanen, a man with a mission to codify and preserve some atavistic sense of Finnishness. Able to answer questions on any subject, from skis to saunas, bears to berries, he demonstrated old-world skiing and the right way to grill a salmon, and we kept him busy with plenty of the sort of questions that only authors really need to know. While our fish was gently tanning by the fire, Akke’s colleague Ilkka led us into the forest to inspect bear traps and fox snares, and to spend an idyllic time fiddling with hammer, anvil and bellows in a reconstruction smithy. Our tour ended on a distant hilltop, where amid totem poles depicting the ancient Karelian forest gods, there was an incongruous metal cube carved with intricate sigils in classical Chinese. I recognised it as the legendary sampo as depicted in the film Jade Warrior, now on permanent loan to the Kalevala Spirit in thanks for their pre-production assistance. And I can believe it, too — I left the place with Finno-Ugric metre in my head and the sting of embers on my hands, with new words and new connections roving around my brain in search of places to turn into prose.

We were even getting poetic ourselves by lunchtime, as witnessed by my Heroic Omelette: “To the fridge went Lemminkainen / searching for the milky dregs / on the upper and the lower / shelves he sought for several eggs”. Akke talked at lunch about his Damascene moment, as an advertising man who realised one day that he lived his life in airports, turning back into his native culture with a vengeance, not merely to recreate it, but to do so from solid, empirical bases in surveys of national character. And to use a book of poems and legends as the blueprint for an entire community… just think of the possibilities! You won’t get *that* with Harry Potter. Or at least, I hope you won’t.

After taking our leave of Akke and his minions, we headed into nearby Kuhmo, the home of the Juminkeko Foundation, an organisation dedicated to the Kalevala itself. If there were any proof needed of the international appeal of the Kalevala, it came in the form the guides on duty that afternoon, Natalia from Russia and Giorgia from Italy, without a Finn in sight. Juminkeko was perfect for me; it had a collection of music that included an Inehmo CD I have meaning to buy for four years, but also a selection of in-depth documentaries on the collection and compilation of the Kalevala. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, so we just took the lot, sitting in the auditorium and watching one excellent film after another, until we sheepishly got to the end and filed out in the realisation that we’d kept the gracious staff waiting past closing time.

It was an inspiring, wonderful day, and fired all of us up with thoughts of Finnishness and Karelianism, and the glorious, quixotic mindset that bootstraps a revolution and an entire country out of a book of poems. Ellen, I know, is already percolating ideas around for a story based on her experiences; Delia is sure that something fictional will come of it in her own work… and so am I.